Dudley Watkins (1907 - 1969)|
When we were young, most of us enjoyed the thrill of receiving our regular dose of adventure and fun in the comic papers that at one time were such a staple part of our reading diet. We all had our favourite characters but many of us. - certainly the present writers – also had our favourite comic strip artists, These artists were invariably anonymous. Their characters may have been household names yet the signature of the artist only rarely appeared on their work - sometimes at the wish of the artist, but usually as the result of the policy of the various comic publishers. In this series of articles we hope to redress the balance a little by looking at the life and work of some of the foremost artists of the British comic strip.
The first of our comic strip artists was, in fact, one of the very few who was allowed to sign his name: Dudley D. Watkins. He is perhaps the most widely-loved and admired of them all for he drew many of the best-loved characters in British comics. During his lifetime the quality of his vast output was taken for granted by the millions of eager readers who chortled at the weekly exploits of “Desperate Dan”, “Lord Snooty and his Pals”, “Biffo The Bear” and a host of other strips which flowed from his pen. It is perhaps an indication of the pulling power that Dudley Watkins had with readers that he was the only artist whom D.C.Thomson, publisher of many of the most successful post-war British comics, allowed to sign his work in full. Watkins is now regarded as one of the handful of truly great comic strip artists and his work is at last beginning to receive the recognition that it deserves.
Dudley Dexter Watkins was born in Manchester on 27 February, 1907, but the family moved to Nottingham while he was still a baby. His father, a lithographic artist, noticed his young son’s artistic ability and ensured that, during his formal education, Dudley had extra art classes at the Nottingham School of Art. After leaving school, he worked for Boots the Chemist and, during 1923, drew for their staff magazine “The Beacon”. A year later he became a student at the Glasgow School of Art where he refined his talents and began to develop his unique style. In 1925 the school’s principal recommended Watkins to a representative of the publisher, D.C.Thomson, and, soon afterwards, the young artist moved to Dundee where the firm had their headquarters.
Few biographical details of Watkins’ early days in Dundee are available. Writing in the “Sunday Times Magazine” for July 29, 1973, George Rosie, something of an expert on the Thomson organisation, said, “Old art department hands remember him as a serious, rather intense man, a bit short on humour, but with a line in dapper suits and a penchant for bowler hats” His early work for Thomson’s consisted of producing black and white line drawings for the firm’s string of very successful boys’ story papers - “Rover”, “Wizard”, “Hotspur”, “Skipper”, and “Adventure”, known collectively as ‘The Big Five’. Viewed today, even that early work was head and shoulders above most of the other illustrations that were appearing in those boys’ papers and his employers must have realised very early on that in Watkins they had a real asset.
During the middle and late nineteen thirties, Watkins became responsible for many of the full colour covers adorning “Rover” and “Skipper” and any representative collection of the artist’s early work would have to include a few of those mellow-coloured covers alongside a selection of spot illustrations from each of the Thomson’s boys’ papers.
‘Give-aways’ have always been popular with young readers and the firm of D.C.Thomson were as eager as their London rivals to attract new readers with ‘free gifts’. “The Rover Midget Comic” and “The Skipper Midget Comic” - given away in their respective story papers in 1933 and 1934 respectively - gave Watkins his first opportunity to draw comic strips. A year later he began his first regular strip, a six- frame ‘filler’ in “Adventure” entitled “Percy Vere and His Trying Tricks”. Percy was a rather inept magician whose tricks had a habit of back-firing on him. The strip ran for almost two years before it was replaced by another Watkins strip, “Wandering Willie The Wily Explorer”, a hard-bitten character who had a number of characteristics that were later adapted by Watkins for his famous character, “Desperate Dan”.
While “Percy Vere and His Trying Tricks” was running in “Adventure”, Watkins created what were to become his most enduring comic strips for a new Thomson venture. “The Broons” (The Browns) and “Oor Wullie” (Our William) were created for the first issue of an eight page pull-out ‘Fun Section’ that was to be given away weekly in “The Sunday Post” from 8 of March, 1936. “The Broons” related the humourous ups and downs of a Scottish family, whilst “Oor Wullie”, a robust little character, was full of impishness and sudden madcap schemes that often went wrong. Wullie began each adventure sitting on an upturned bucket in philosophical mood and ended each exploit, again on his bucket, sometimes down in the dumps, sometimes with a smile, if he had come out ‘on top’ in his latest scrape with authority. The characters were both lovable and roguish with the humour coming far more from the artist’s perception of life’s trivialities and the antics of the multitude of small, chubby characters who cascaded across the pages than from the simple plots.
“The Broons” and “Oor Wullie” established themselves as Scottish institutions and most of the strips were eventually reprinted in book form. The first “The Broons” book was published in September 1939, followed ,in the autumn of 1940, by the first “Oor Wullie”. With the exception of the years 1943 to 1946, the large, soft-backed “Broons” and “Oor Wullie” books have been published on alternate years ever since, though few of the strips reprinted in recent volumes have been by Watkins. The early issues are extremely scarce with the first issue of each title now commanding prices of over £1000. In 1996, D.C.Thomson published a handsome hardback volume entitled “The Broons and Oor Wullie 1936 – 1996”, a fine tribute to both the characters and their main artist. For more information on The Broons and Oor Wullie see Ray Moore’s article in BMC no. 152 and for his new, in-depth study of the strips and books featuring these characters look out for “The Broons and Oor Wullie Diaries” to be published shortly.
The popularity of the ‘Fun Section’ was probably a major factor in Thomson’s decision to launch “The Dandy Comic” in December 1937. Watkins’ main contribution to the new comic was a strip version of “Our Gang”, based on the short Hal Roach films. Watkins’ drawings had to depict the characters as seen on the cinema screen and the restraints of such drawing rather cramped his style. “Our Gang” is not particularly highly regarded today but, at the time, it was popular enough to run in the comic for almost ten years.
“Desperate Dan” made his first appearance in the inaugural issue of “Dandy Comic”. His first adventure was a short, nine-frame, half-page effort that gave little indication of the wonderful mix of dynamism and warmth and far-fetched plotlines that was to gain the character such enormous popularity over the years. Dan certainly was a real desperate character then: a rough, tough cowboy who lacked those touches of innocence and naivety that were to make him so endearing in later years. As the character developed, so Watkins’ artwork blossomed. Like so much of Watkins’ work the humour in “Desperate Dan” was such that it could be enjoyed at several levels and by all ages from eight to eighty.
The strips were often rather bizarre; their humour of the sort similar to that found in the “Goon Show” in later years. Anything could happen - and it frequently did! Dan’s exploits often extended over many weeks. One of the longest, published in 1948, introduced a whole clan of Dan’s relations. They all gathered to see who would inherit their rich uncle’s millions. Ten weeks later, in the final episode, it was revealed that the millions were foreign stamps that raised only eighty cents when Dan sold them for salvage!
Apart from the high quality of Watkins’ drawing, much of the popularity of the “Desperate Dan” strips was due to their imaginatively-creative plots. The storylines gave the artist plenty of scope to draw outlandish contraptions and to create rib-tickling scenes. Some of the best “Desperate Dan” strips drawn during the 1940s were reprinted in “The Dandy’s Desperate Dan”, published in the autumn of 1953. Many of the strips reprinted in the volume had originally run as serials over several weeks. As copies of “Dandy Comic” from the 1940’s are now expensive to buy and increasingly difficult to find, the book makes it possible for collectors to see how the plots of the longer “Desperate Dan” adventures developed without the need to own long runs of the comic. “The Dandy’s Desperate Dan” is now a scarce book with copies in VG condition costing in excess of £100. The second “Desperate Dan” book, published a quarter of a century later, in 1978, comprised sixty two Watkins strips reprinted from the “Dandy Comic” of the 1950s. This book was very common until recently but is now beginning to creep up in price. A representative selection of Watkins’ Desperate Dan strips can be found in the large format volume, “The Legend of Desperate Dan”, published by D.C.Thomson in 1997 and still fairly plentiful on the secondhand market.
The success of “The Dandy Comic” prompted D.C.Thomson to launch a companion comic the following year. “The Beano Comic”, first published on July 30, 1938, had a mix of stories, adventure strips and comic strips virtually identical to its predecessor. “Lord Snooty And His Pals”, Watkins’ only contribution to the first issue, was clearly conceived to repeat the success of “Our Gang” in “Dandy Comic”. At first the two strips had many similarities but, within a few years, Watkins’ artwork had transformed Lord Snooty into a much zanier strip. The original gang, consisting of Snooty and his six pals, were soon joined by Snitchy and Snatchy, a pair of mischievous toddlers whose devious schemes helped to develop many a plot. Watkins’ early Lord Snooty strips were crammed with tiny figures; often well over a hundred chubby bundles of humanity teemed across the Lord Snooty page. Both “Desperate Dan” and “Lord Snooty and His Pals” did their bit for the war effort, the episodes where they outwitted and humiliated Hitler having an almost surreal look about them.
Early in 1942, Watkins drew himself into an hilarious Snooty episode. Snooty and his pals spot the artist sketching outside their castle home and ask ‘Mr.Watkins’ to teach them how to draw. They are incensed when they read in the book he lends them that comic artists must make their characters look funnier than they really are. They complain to the artist that, by making them look like silly idiots each week in “The Beano”, everyone laughs at them. Watkins, annoyed by their cheek, refuses to draw any more of their adventures and turns his talents to the Gaswork Gang. Snooty substitutes Watkins’ artwork for a ridiculous cartoon and, when the Gaswork Gang see it, they black the artist’s eye. The final frame depicts the dishevelled Watkins agreeing to continue drawing “Lord Snooty and His Pals”.
The first series of Lord Snooty strips ran until July 1949 and, when the second series began seventeen months later, in December, 1950, it had been reshaped with only Snooty and four others of the original gang remaining. Four new pals and two animal characters were introduced. Watkins continued to draw the strip until 1955 when, for almost ten years, the page consisted of reprints and strips by other artists. Watkins began drawing the strip again in 1964 and drew most of the weekly adventures until April, 1968.
On 22 July, Thomson launched a third comic aimed at a younger readership, entitled “The Magic Comic”. For the new venture Watkins drew “Peter Piper”, subtitled ‘picking people out of pickles’. It relied on one of the traditional comic ploys: a boy with magic powers at his command. In this case the magic was supplied by a set of Pan-pipes. When blown, the pipes had the power to bring statues to life. As the strip progressed, the pipes were used to animate characters from books, pictures and posters - even snowmen were susceptible to the magic. However, the strip itself had very little of the Watkins’ magic. The composition was workmanlike but the characters were sketchy and the strip lacked the detail found in Watkins’ other work of the period. Peter Piper looked suspiciously like Oor Wullie but lacked the facial detail that made Wullie so memorable and so popular.
Towards the end of the short run of “The Magic Comic”, Dudley Watkins provided spot illustrations for “Gulliver”, a series of text stories featuring Swift’s nautical hero in Lilliput. He also supplemented each story with a short five or six frame strip drawn in a more dramatic style than that which he used for his purely humorous work. The “Gulliver” strips were a foretaste of what was to come when Watkins turned his hand to period adventure strips.
During 1941 Watkins drew a few “Tom Thumb” strips for “Beano Comic”, standing in when the regular artist was not available. But his first real historical adventure strip was “Peter Pye” a humorous Medieval strip that began in “Dandy Comic” on 7 February, 1942. Peter Pye was a boy cook whose ambition was to be cook to the King. Watkins had a great personal interest in the Middle Ages and used his knowledge to embellish his work with authentic period costume and armour. He had the gift of being able to inculcate his historical and adventure strips with an authentic feel for the period or locality he was depicting and this was to stand him in good stead during the 1950s when a good part of his output would be devoted to historical and action adventure strips. “Peter Pye” ran for less than a year and was never reprinted. It seems regrettable that Watkins’ first full scale adventure strip was centred around a theme that gave neither scriptwriter nor artist much scope, for the artwork was masterfully drawn, the artists’ enthusiasm for the period evident in almost every frame. Despite its short run “Peter Pye” did serve a useful purpose: it clearly showed both reader and publisher that Dudley Watkins could be as much a master of adventure as he was of humour. Although he continued to draw his ‘funny’ strips - “Our Gang”, “Lord Snooty and His Pals” and “Desperate Dan” - for their respective comics, during the mid-1940s, a great deal of his creative energy began to chanelled into a multitude of finely-drawn adventure strips.
The first of these was “Lone Wolf”, drawn for “Beano Comic”. “Lone Wolf” was a masked avenger, very much along the lines of the “Lone Ranger” whose adventures in strip form were at that time appearing in Odhams’ “Mickey Mouse Weekly”. “Lone Wolf”, with the aid of his canine companion, White Fang, rounded up wrongdoers in the ‘Old West’. The strip lacked the humour and charm of “Peter Pye”, but its twelve single-page episodes showed yet another facet of Watkins’ ability: his skill in capturing the feel and flavour of the western as unerringly as he did the English Middle Ages. The strip was reprinted in “Adventure” during 1950 under the title “Outlaw Sheriff.”
Watkins’ outstanding strip success of 1942 was “Dick Whittington and His Cat,” a double-paged, detail-crammed strip which ran for twenty episodes in “Dandy Comic” from November, 1942. The strip was based on the traditional 14th century story of the boy who went to London to seek his fortune. In the course of the serial, Dick travelled the globe, winning favour and fortune. Aspects of other traditional stories were woven into the plots. In issue 244, for example, Dick and Puss encountered Basat, the ‘Pied Piper’, and undercut his price for clearing a plague of rats from a village! In the final episode, Dick returned home to London where he was eventually made Lord Mayor. The final double-width frame of the episode depicts Dick and his cats driving through the streets in a fine carriage. The splendidly-drawn frame is filled with figures in costume and armour. It was perhaps artistic licence that Watkins anachronistically drew in the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. Unfortunately, “Dick Whittington and His Cat” was never reprinted and remains a difficult set of strips for collectors to obtain.
Historical accuracy was replaced by out and out adventure in “The Shipwrecked Circus”, a strip Watkins drew for “Beano Comic.” It recounted the struggles and adventures of members of Sampson’s Circus after they are shipwrecked on a South Sea island. There was plenty of scope here for exciting drawing and Watkins made the most of it. In one episode a waterspout engulfed part of the island and, in a beautifully drawn sequence, Watkins captured the panic, fear, devastation and eventual joy of salvation. With such sequences there was little need for the reader to bother with the block of text printed under each frame, for the illustrations themselves told it all. Watkins drew the first twelve instalments of that first “Shipwrecked Circus” series before it was taken over by other artists. Part of the series was reprinted in the “Beano” during 1958 but, unfortunately, the frames were reduced in siz, making it difficult for readers to appreciate the wealth of detail that the artist had put into the work. A second series of “The Shipwrecked Circus”, drawn by Dudley Watkins, began in the Christmas 1946 issue of the “Beano”.
Watkins’ most enduring adventure strip was undoubtedly “Jimmy and His Magic Patch”. It was on New Year’s Day, 1944, in “Beano” number 222, that Jimmy Watson began his eighteen year stint in the comic. Like “Peter Piper, Jimmy too relied on a magical, wish- fulfilling token. While rescuing a gypsy woman’s cat from a tree, Jimmy tore a hole in his trousers. The grateful pet owner mended them with a patch cut from a convenient magic carpet. Jimmy had only to wish and his patch would whisk him off through time and space. Jimmy Watson’s adventures were wonderfully anachronistic, blending legend with a sprinkling of reality. In Jimmy’s world Alfred burnt the cakes and Odysseus built the Wooden Horse of Troy. What Homer had been blissfully unaware of was that it was Jimmy’s cough sweets, handed round to the closely-confined Greeks, that prevented their untimely discovery before the Trojans were sufficiently intoxicated to be overcome.
Jimmy’s pockets were always very well stocked; their unplumbed depths often the source of some seemingly useless item of junk that could be ingeniously employed to help some ancient hero win the day. Watkins had a field day depicting scenes and costumes from all periods of history. The strip’s scope was almost limitless and the artist was as much at home in the fantasy-fiction world of Sinbad, Santa Claus and Strang the Terrible as he was depicting George Stephenson, Florence Nightingale or William Tell. Sherwood Forest was Jimmy’s most frequent port of cal:; he visited Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men on no fewer than eight occasions - not counting reprints! Watkins drew three series of “Jimmy and His Magic Patch” between 1944 and 1949, totalling almost one hundred adventures.
In the early 1950’s, Paddy Brennan took over the” Magic Patch” strips, but they were nowhere near as successful as those drawn by Watkins. Fortunately a large number of Watkins’ “Jimmy and His Magic Patch” strips were reprinted in both the “Beano” and the “Beano Book” during the 1950’s.
The first series of “Jimmy and His Magic Patch” ended in “Beano” number 239. It was followed immediately by “Strang the Terrible” ‘The adventures of the strongest man in the world’. The strip was adapted from a story that had appeared in “Adventure” in 1936. The muscle-bound Strang faced monsters and other dangers as he led the lost tribe of Goz out of the Valley of the Monsters and tried to find them a peaceful part of South America in which to settle. Watkins packed humour and excitement into the 14 episodes as Strang battled renegade soldiers and gold-hungry swindlers before his task was finally completed. In 1950, the strip was reprinted in colour on the cover of “Adventure”. A few years later it was reprinted yet again in the pages of “Rover”, with the hero’s name changed to Morgyn the Mighty. Watkins’ final flirtation with the Thomson strongmen came in 1951 when he painted the dustwrapper and drew fourteen black and white illustrations for “Morgyn The Mighty”, one of the handful of hardbacked books published by D.C.Thomson. While this volume turns up quite frequently without its wrapper, copies in their full-colour jacket are surprisingly difficult to find and will cost up to £50 in VG condition.
In February, 1945, Watkins began drawing a new adventure strip for “Dandy”. It concerned a ten-foot tall boy named “Danny Longlegs”. “He’s ten feet tall and up to his ears in trouble”, read the blurb at the top of the first episode. Danny’s exploits began in the Medieval village of Sleepy Valley; but his mischievous nature got him into trouble and he soon left his home town and adventured far and wide.
The first series ran for over two years, coming to an end in August, 1947. It says a lot for Watkins’ artistic ability that he was able to make a success out of a series concerning a hero who was so much taller than the rest of the cast of characters. A lesser artist would have courted disaster attempting to draw the many different perspectives required to allow the extra tall character to feature in the same frames as short schoolboys. Yet Watkins made it a success and the characters, including Danny, were always drawn in proportion. A second series of “Danny Longlegs” began in June, 1948.
Watkins’ output of adventure strips for “Beano” continued with “Six Brands for Bonnie Prince Charlie”, a short series recounting the quest of Red Fergie and Coll MacDonald for a hidden treasure. Like many Thomson serials of the 1930s and ‘40s, it used the rather overworked theme of a search for clues. Each episode brought the leading characters one step nearer to their goal.
It was during 1946 that Dudley Watkins’ name or initials began to appear on his pages of strips. Rumour has it that a rival publisher approached the artist with a tempting offer and that one of his conditions for staying with D.C.Thomson was that he be allowed to sign his work. Whatever the truth of the matter, he began signing “Oor Wullie” and “The Broons” in June, 1946. In August “Danny Longlegs” was signed and on September 14th ‘DW’ appeared in the final frame of “Lord Snooty and His Pals”. Readers of “Beano” number 293, were left in no doubt as to the illustrator of their favourite strips. “Lord Snooty and His Pals”, “Jimmy and His Magic Patch”, and “Tom Thumb” were all boldly signed with the artist’s full name, “Dudley D. Watkins”. Watkins continued to sign most of his work for the rest of his life.
The second series of “Danny Longlegs” was followed by a curious strip entitled “Our Teacher’s a Walrus”, concerning a teacher who swallowed a magic pill and then, rather foolishly, wished that he was a walrus. His wish came true and he spent much of the strip’s nine episodes trying to avoid ending up in a freak-show!
On January 24th, 1948, Dudley took over the full-colour cover of “Beano”. “Big Eggo”, the original cover character was ousted and his place was taken by “Biffo the Bear”. In his early adventures, Biffo was a short, fluffy bear but, as the years passed, he grew in height, lost his infant cuteness and developed into a rather worldly bear. For the first few years his escapades were purely visual, with no text or speech bubbles. In the early 1950s, he gained a regular pal to share his page and it was the friendly rivalry between Biffo and his pal, Buster, that provided material for many of the comic’s covers. Watkins drew practically every “Biffo the Bear” strip from January, 1948, until his death in 1969, a total of over one thousand covers.
Throughout the paper shortage of the 1940s, “Beano” and “Dandy” had each been published fortnightly, on alternate weeks. With the resumption of weekly publication in 1949, Dudley Watkins suddenly found himself having to meet weekly, rather than fortnightly deadlines. Something had to go and to a great extent it was the adventure strips. His final adventure strips for “Dandy” were a western series entitled “Black Hoof”, and a modern day fantasy entitled “Tommy Brown’s Slave”. He also drew the opening episode of an exciting Elizabethan adventure entitled “Young Drake”. His farewell adventure strip for “Beano” was “Jack Flash” in 1949.
The loss of weekly adventure strips drawn by Watkins was a great blow to comic readers but there was something almost as good to take their place. In the late 1940s, Dudley had started to draw strip adaptations of classic adventure novels for the Thomson magazine, “Peoples’ Journal”. During the 1950s and 1960s most of these were reprinted. Four of the serials, “Kidnapped”, “Treasure Island”, “Robinson Crusoe” and “Oliver Twist”, were reprinted in book form with colourful dustwrappers. Many were also reprinted in “Topper”, a new comic launched by Thomson in February, 1953. The first issue of “Topper” reprinted the opening episode of “Treasure Island” in full colour on its back page and, over the years, reprints of other Watkins ‘classic’ strips, including : “King Solomon’s Mines”, “Allan Quartermain” and “The Three Musketeers”, as well as the four previously published in book form, also appeared on the back page of “Topper”. A new Watkins creation, “Mickey The Monkey”, a character with many of the qualities of Biffo the Bear, graced the comic’s front cover.
Dudley Watkins’ final great comic creation was “Ginger”, the cover character created for the first issue of “Beezer” on 21st of January, 1956. “Ginger” looked sneakingly like Oor Wullie but, instead of sitting on a bucket at the beginning and end of each adventure, Ginger introduced and concluded each of his exploits sitting up in bed!
Dudley had always been a deeply religious man and, during the 1950s and 1960s, he drew, free of charge, two sets of strips for “The World Evangelization Crusade” magazine, entitled “Young Warrior”. One series was entitled “William The Warrior” and the second series was entitled “Tony and Tina”. Some of the “William The Warrior” strips were collected in two soft-backed pamphlets, one entitled “William The Warrior” and the other “William The Warrior Puzzle Book”. The “Tony and Tina” strips were all reprinted in a series of three softbacked books. In the late 1960s, Watkins also drew two full-colour religious strips for “The Sparky Book”, a life of Christ and the story of David the shepherd boy.
Dudley Watkins died of a heart attack on 20th August, 1969, at the early age of sixty two. In the forty four years he had worked for D.C.Thomson he had created some of their most memorable characters. His output was prodigious, yet the quality of his work was always impeccable.
By Norman Wright & David Ashford. Reprinted from Book and Magazine Collector no. 211 by permission of the publisher and authors. Back issues of Book and Magazine Collector can be obtained from: Book & Magazine Collector, 45 St. Mary’s Rd, Ealing, London W5 5RQ. Issues cost : UK: £3.50, Europe £3.95. Special offer on back issues to USA, Canada and Australia: 3 issues by surface mail for £11.00. By Airmail: USA/Canada: 3 issues for £13.50, Australia: 3 issues for £13.90. Payment in Sterling payable: Diamond Publishing Group Ltd.
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